Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"I try to make elegant and meaningful signs" : Interview with Robert Firmage, part 2

(This is Part 2 of my interview with Robert Firmage, poet and translator, now retired from teaching philosophy at the University of Utah. Part 1 may be found here.)


S.: I’ve been thinking about the way some poets speak to one when one is young, and other poets very slowly dawn on one, and you only really come to them later in life. I don’t know when you first found Horace for instance, or first found Horace speaking to you, but this interests me, that poets speak to us at different eras of our lives.

R.F.: It’s very true. And there are poets who find their own stride much later in life as well. I like those poets who mature well, who age with us. Yeats. Huchel. Horace did not change so much, though even he did his satires first and only then accomplished the odes. And of course they lived shorter lives by then -- by the age of fifty, you were a mature poet in Augustus’ day, whereas Yeats was in his seventies when he wrote his most powerful work. I think the same is true of Huchel. But as to why it appeals -- isn’t this fairly obvious? When you are young, you are interested in poetry as expression. As you age, you become more interested in whole composition -- you become a classicist, almost naturally. It’s certainly happened to me. I was a definitely a romantic when I was younger.

S.: This is one reason why I wonder about the undertaking of translating Horace now. It seems a very classicist project.

R.F.: Well, I started it in the early '90s. I was still in my forties. He was under-translated then; the shelves were full of Vergil translations of course, and Ovid. And as I read him, I liked him more and more. This is always what happens; I read, and I find something there. What I liked, even then, was the quest for perfection.

S.: Artistic, formal, compositional perfection, I take it.

R.F.: Yes. The Ginsbergs of the world don’t interest me. Or even Rimbaud. I haven't translated him, though he did have a strong native talent.

S.: Clearly. But Rimbaud was also a poet who obviously did not mature as he went along -- at least not into further poetry. I’m not saying that one cannot read Rimbaud with pleasure as one ages, but the relationship between poetry and its abandonment has to loom ever larger as one does. One of the most interesting cases, I think, is Rilke, because Rilke seems to me to appeal very strongly to young readers, and yet to sustain attention as readers grow older. I think this must in some measure have to do wit hhis own slow maturation as a poet. The ten-year gap, for instance, between the beginning of the Duino Elegies and their completion, along with the Sonnets to Orpheus, with which, as you mentioned, you began your own efforts at translation.

R.F.: Rilke was in some ways my poetic father. I started with him very young -- twenty-three or so; I read the Sonnets to Orpheus when I took a German class. I love the sonnet form. I’ve gone through five different stages translating the Sonnets to Orpheus. The second version, for instance, I’ve thought about publishing separately, even though it’s unrhymed. Then I decided that clearly the rhymes do matter, and I went back and did them again. But there are other considerations as well; first, the sound has to be correspondent to Rilke’s sound -- it can’t be the same, English can’t possibly give the same dark sounds that German gives, but the melody has got to come close. Secondly, as a modernist, I insist on the diction being that of spoken language -- something you can or would actually say.

I was reading some translations of Horace, which sacrifice this to metrics -- and you can get the metrics approximately close if you substitute accent for quantity -- but they read like gibberish, like doggerel. So with Horace it’s the same problem -- and this is probably the main reason I was drawn to translating him: the challenge of somehow being true to the flow of the music of Latin. Latin is such a different language from English -- quantitative where English is accentual -- and Latin does without articles as well, which English requires. This gives Horace a tremendous advantage. I want to keep the same basic schemes, though I don’t insist upon absolute mimicry. One of the Sapphic Odes, for instance, I decided to use as a test, it has three eleven-syllable lines and the fourth line is five syllables, which repeat the last part of each of the others. Now when you do Sapphics, the fourth syllable is always long (or in English, accented) -- this is not my discovery, it’s noticed by scholars -- so I decided to use that as the poetic center. It’s quite difficult; you end up not with iambics but dactyls, DUM-da-da DUM-da-da; and trying to do that with articles is challenging. I’ve made many shifts and switches; but I do have eleven-syllable lines with a notable cadence to them, and in speakable English, though even I have run into doggerel sometimes, especially in the Sapphics. Nothing wrong with doggerel, of course, in some traditions -- Faust, for instance is written in knittelvers, which is really just a kind of doggerel basically, but it’s a convention; the ear gets used to it and comes to expect it.

S.: And if you have to sacrifice one of these criteria, which do you let go?

R.F.: Depends. I pay attention to my ear.

S.: I recently watched the film Arrival, a science fiction film that was in theaters lately; it’s based on a short story by Ted Chiang, called “Story of Your Life,” which I also read. In both the film and the story, alien ships arrive on Earth, to the alarm of governments; human beings attempt to establish communication with them. Of course their language is completely unfamiliar, completely other. The story is narrated by a linguist who begins to grasp that their language is essentially tenseless; and as she begins to be able to think in their language, she starts to experience strange flash-forwards, anticipations of future events. Slowly it emerges that the whole narrative structure of the story or the film, is very informed by this. Events you thought occurred in the narrative past turn out to be in the characters’ future. At one point in the film it even references the Sapir-Whorff thesis that the language one speaks and thinks in shapes the reality one inhabits.

R.F.: I believe that as well.

S.: This is my question -- do you think that, for instance, the lack of or presence of articles in a language, its tensedness or lack thereof -- how do these affect us? Do they change what we can think, or what kind of poetry we can write?

R.F.: I think this is why I became a translator. When I learned German, I began to think in a new way. It’s very subtle, though -- people who know you just notice how you start to pronounce Volkswagen differently. But you’re really learning a music that informs your life, your responses to things. And poetry is an attempt to shape responses in your reader. The only way you can even begin to make this “objective” is to note the responses, and then back up and extrapolate from the response to what might be behind it. Being married to a German, I discover this all the time. My wife and I still have these moments when our language goes sideways from one another. You might say, Oh that’s the culture, and of course it is, but you can’t separate culture from language.

S.: This is still the case, after how many years?

R.F.: We were married in 1982. Of course; if you think about things you cannot help but notice these little miscommunications. Things go awry, and you ask, what on earth happened there? And it’s very often -- for us -- that the root is in a mistranslation. I go over it again and realize, Ah, I said this, but she understood that.

S.: Kierkegaard writes -- admittedly, under cover of pseudonym and in a highly ironic key -- “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry -- you will regret both.” And you might rejoin: Marry or do not marry, you will misunderstand.

R.F.: Of course. But these things are subtle; if you don’t have your antennae out, you miss them. You get the same things within a single language naturally, but across languages they can sometimes be much more pronounced. I feel very sorry for anyone who marries someone from another culture without knowing the language of that culture.

S.: I have heard the anecdote, which I have no reason to doubt though I came by it second-hand, of a couple who met and despite having no common language at all at first, fell wordlessly but overwhelmingly in love. Alas, the love did not survive the eventual learning of a common language. As long as they didn’t know what the other was saying, they were besotted. It was as though this barrier allowed something to grow up that depended upon this very specific restriction.

R.F.: Love lost in translation.

S.: Yes.

R.F.: Everything gets lost in translation. This is why translation is not so much an imitation as it is a re-creation of the poem. That’s why I believe -- mystically -- in the poem within the poem. It’s that which I’m trying to render.

Let’s go back to the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis for a moment. What always interested me about it is its assertion that any language singles out specific aspects of reality. I see reality as a plenum, and language is, as I said before, a sort of grid, placed over this plenum, to notice different things. If you take the paradigm case of this, which I think was one of Sapir’s examples -- the numerous Eskimo words for “snow” --

S.: A case that I believe has been mildly debunked or deflated.

R.F.: But the “debunking” is itself a misconception of what is at play here. The counter-claim is, it doesn’t really change their conceptual relationship to the world, but this puts an undue emphasis upon the conceptual register, the rational. In that register, we have a particular model, and we learn to think according to it. And sure -- once you’ve got the formal model, you have input and output and so on, but what I’m interested in is in the perception of the world, one really does -- or can -- make one’s experience richer and with a new language, which singles out different things, which can say different things, or in different ways. There are some things my wife and I may want to say to each other which make it so much easier to go into German; and other things you can’t say in German at all. English is a more supple language, but German has a corresponding deeper register.

S.: Heidegger seems to have thought that for philosophy there were really only two languages, Greek -- ancient Greek -- and German; and he almost implies that without these, one cannot really think -- in the way he means when he speaks of the coming of “Thinking” after the end of philosophy (which of course I don’t believe in) -- if one can’t use one of those. To you I’d ask: as a self-avowed, if idiosyncratic, Taoist (and maybe all Taoists are idiosyncratic, maybe that’s part of the full description), do you feel at all at a disadvantage having no Chinese? Do you feel separated from that tradition?

R.F.: No. The Chinese may have discovered the Tao, but they didn’t invent it. The Tao is independent of language anyway. The Spoken Tao is not the true Tao. Words are signposts -- that’s good taoist doctrine. They point, or push maybe, towards certain kinds of experience which you otherwise can’t -- or can’t easily -- have. And apropos Heidegger -- he’s clearly “the last metaphysician,” in that he believes in Language. My critique of him is a sort of Derridadaism. But I must admit, when he talks about, say, the German word Grund, which means both “ground” and “reason,” that expanse of meaning is profound, and he’s right -- it’s impossible to think this fully in English; you have to keep jumping between languages. But it’s not ultimate reality we’re talking about here -- Grund too is a signpost.

S.: As is “Tao” -- “Way.” But you don’t think, in any case, that “metaphysics” is a dirty word.

R.F.: Not at all. You can’t avoid it.

S.: So being “the last” metaphysician….

R.F.: ...is a myth.

S.: We ain’t never got the last one.

R.F.: No. Now we have a lot of rather bad metaphysicians, who call themselves scientists. Metaphysics is a result of language, or trying to interface reality with a conception thereof. And they’ll never be the same -- that’s the essence of my Taoism. At the same time, as a poet, I try to make elegant and meaningful signs.

S.: Because after all, there can also be very bad signs.

R.F.: There are bad signs. You can have a sign that says, [pointing north] “Provo’s that way.” And of course it is! But it’s a long trip if you go that way.

S.: Yes! It’s not a false sign. But it’s not the most useful for many purposes. So maybe the question, “What time is it on the sun?” can have an answer in certain contexts --

R.F.: Of course, making certain assumptions, and with certain arbitrary starting points, you can come up with an answer. This is what we do anyway. But the question “What time is it now on the sun?” does present real problems. In this case, not only will you have to do a bit of relativistic mathematics, but the question is, is what you are doing with relativity relevant to the issue? Or is it just the case that there is no answer? I tend towards the latter position.

S.: You know, as must be evident, I like to bad-mouth scientism-ists as much as --

R.F.: -- as I do.

S.: -- I was going to say, as much as anybody -- and maybe we do risk being an in-crowd of two, looking down our noses. But isn’t there a pertinence to science we risk missing here? This might not be the most grave danger -- the graver risk might be the spiritual one of self-congratulation -- but while it’s easy to dismiss the over-reach of scientism, it also seems to me that we live in a political climate now in which it’s become all too common to brush science away with a shrug of “That’s your story.” You know -- you’ve got your set of “facts,” and we’ve got ours. And I don’t want to capitulate to that, or be co-opted as an accomplice. Nor do I want to capitulate to scientism, of course.

R.F.: So what do you do? Well, I would say: They’re both wrong. The common language they share is one of “fact,” and the world is not built out of facts.

S.: So you depart from the early Wittgenstein too, inasmuch as he said “the world is the totality of facts, not of things.” Though of course, as soon as I cite this, I realize that he didn't say the world was built out of facts.

R.F.:“Fact” is a post-hoc way we use to speak of something that’s already happened; it has a role in a complex way we have of extrapolating to predictions. Even with something like climate change -- is it natural, is it caused by human actions? -- the truth could obviously be in between; and we can still act responsibly and intelligently against pollution no matter what the scientific consensus is, or isn’t.

S.: But first of all, there’s a suspicion that the anti-science stance on the right is actually wholly unconcerned with science itself. It doesn’t give a damn about science; it’s merely deploying an array of rhetorical moves against its claims to validity, but this rhetoric stems from motives that have to do with something else entirely. It simply has an agenda and it doesn’t want science -- or the rhetoric of science -- getting in the way.

R.F.: It still has to deploy the idea of the “fact” to do this. But my main objection to science -- and I don’t use the word scientism, I use the phrase “church of science” -- is twofold: it’s teaching two things I think are not only wrong, but dangerous. First, the notion that everything is material, that the only aspects of reality that have any meaning are what you can quantify -- which is hopelessly parochial, if you think about it -- and, secondly, the notion of evolution, especially as it applies to morality and spirituality.

S.: Can you say more about what you object to here?

R.F.: This idea that is now in everyone’s head, that life is and reduces to a struggle for survival. And it isn’t -- it never was; but they’re turning it into one, and turning it into Hell as a result.

S.: And thus results precisely the very zero-sum struggle between science and its detractors.

R.F.: We have no moral ground to stand on, as a result -- and thus no justification in our own struggles against those who would do us harm.

S.: Except the Thrasymachan claim that we are -- for the moment -- stronger.

R.F.: Which is no moral ground at all. And this is the fault of the church of science, whether they know it or not. They might say, of course, that it’s just an unfortunate fact, but I don’t believe this. Morality is every bit as much a part, an aspect, of reality as anything else.

S.: Certainly. But it’s unclear to me that the idea of evolution, of natural selection, is the lynchpin of this problem. I want to say that there’s something amiss with the premise of naturalism. Or perhaps you could have naturalism without materialism -- that might be another way.

R.F.: I would say that the problem with both of them is that their apostles try to go too far with them. It’s simply human nature -- you find something that works, and you run with it. Uncritically, at times.

S.: And eventually you wind up like Wile E. Coyote, out spinning his feet in mid-air off the edge of the cliff without realizing there’s nothing under him anymore.

R.F.: And any thinker ought to see this as cautionary. We do that all the time.

S.: You are familiar with Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

R.F.: Of course.

S.: Do you admire it?

R.F.: Not uncritically. What can I say? He chose the wrong vehicle for one thing.

S.: Hinayana rather than Mahayana? So to suit you, it ought to have been a bicycle?

R.F.: [Laughs]. I find what he does to be a decent popularization of a number of things. But he’s not great on Plato.

S.: He’s not strong on the Greeks, nor indeed in my opinion on comparative philosophy generally. But he’s relevant here in a particular way. To my mind, the two great virtues of his novel, aside from the fact that as a novel it succeeds very well, are first, that he raises a number of philosophical issues in a way that provides an accessible gateway into them and the way in which they interconnect; and secondly, that he suggests what he saw -- justifiably, I think -- as a solution with a fair degree of novelty; a solution to a nested tangle of problems that he believed could be answered by seeing as primary something that is usually, today, regarded as derivative. His word for this something is “Quality”. Yours, I take it, is morality -- “as real as anything else,” you said, and Pirsig thinks that in some wise it’s almost more real. And maybe this “more” is another instance of taking a solution and running with it, pressing it too far; but Pirsig thinks that Quality is the beginning of everything; he winds up trying to assimilate it to the Tao.

R.F.: I think that’s what’s quite good about him. I was trying, as you spoke, to recall what struck me about the book, and I kept coming back to the assertion that you can’t repair a motorcycle while listening to rock and roll.

S.: Yes, there’s an episode in the book where that’s exactly the problem.

R.F.: It’s an important lesson: you have to learn how to focus. That’s where Quality comes in --

S.: Or maybe where you can open up to it. But I imagine there are probably mechanics who can use whatever the music as a means of focus --

R.F.: -- of course.

S.: -- but I think Pirsig’s critique is that very often you wind up with scatteredness instead. Of course, anything can be put together in order to in a way that has quality, but in that case, they’ve really become a new, whole, thing. Maybe not unlike a poem moving between two languages. And moving organically rather than a futile quest for one-to-one lexical equivalence.

R.F.: The quest for quality of life, rather than quantification, is certainly what I’m trying to do in my own poetry. To achieve a certain quality of language, for instance, as it relates to certain problems. This is hard to talk about, precisely because it’s not quantifiable -- and this is what our minds do, is quantify.

S.: Which implies that the scientific predilection for the quantifiable is something that at least the human mind comes by honestly. Pirisg of course says explicitly that Quality is precisely undefinable; if you try to define it “something goes haywire.” But you know that it’s real.

R.F.: So you try to show it, rather.

S.: As Wittgenstein would also say.

R.F.: That’s what one does as a poet, or as an artist, or even as a mechanic. “How does this bike run?” “It runs good, now. See?”

S.: And you’d show this by riding it.

R.F.: Exactly.

S.: We were speaking earlier of nonverbal “conversations,” and this is just such an example. The quality is shown in the interaction. Likewise too, you show the quality of the road in the same way. And even the quality of the destination.

R.F.: Or of the journey. It’s this perception of quality that is missed, however, by all these rationalistic models. So though I’m not exactly a fan of Pirsig, he clearly put his finger on a very real issue, and popularized it exceedingly. That was a very widely-selling book.

S.: Is that an asset or a liability?

R.F.: No doubt if something is widely popular, it cannot be all good; popular taste is too unreliable. But by the same token, it cannot be worthless either.

S.: “The wisdom of crowds.”

R.F.: The problem of course is looking for absolutes here.

S.: Well the way of the Tao might suggest that one looks here, too, for a balance. Popularity has something to be said for it. But then on the other hand, the Taoist sages were not a majority in China; they were -- at least according to the (popular?!) image -- very few, living far away from cities.

R.F.: And who tried to avoid the people and the bustle of court. To take this one step further, there is a mystery surrounding the story of the origin of the Tao Te Ching. Why would a good Taoist write such a book -- committing the unsayable to words? You can just imagine the Buddhist sages shuddering: “bad karma!” But no; part of one’s job is to educate. So you put out signposts.

S.: The philosopher returns to the cave. Of course the story is that Lao Tzu wrote things down only at the behest of the gatekeeper, as he was leaving forever.

R.F.: Apocryphal, naturally; but the point is there was always the mystery of why he did it, so someone felt compelled to come up with such a story.

S.: Which has its own pertinence. It serves as part of the frame for receiving the text, this parable of him doing his best in that moment, bowing to another sort of necessity.

R.F.: And it could have been that. But I tend to think it was the product of a school, which had preserves all these pieces of tradition as part of the training of people in The Way. Someone of course put them into this final form; we call him Lao Tzu, which means, the old dude.

Brecht, interestingly wrote a poem on Lao Tzu, the writing of the Tao Te Ching, and the transmission between teacher and student, which I’ve translated. We share this, Brecht and I -- both Horace and Taoism. I have the advantage, of course; I came later. So I could read all of Brecht as well.

S.: Brecht seems another figure whose life is deeply pertinent to our time. One wonders what he would say.

R.F.: He’d say: More of the same. Brecht was sardonic even from his youth; he began as a cabaret actor. Anti-expressionist -- he liked clarity. He grew up in a well-to-do middle class family, and hated their values. Became a communist early and was one all his life --

S.: -- in that sense, an idealist --

R.F.: -- but he’s amused by human behavior.

S.: And sometimes, in this respect, he strikes me as being cynical -- too cynical.

R.F.: Can you define that? After all, cynicism anciently was an attempt to imitate the life of Socrates.

S.: Yes. The word “cynicism” has mutated. When it comes to “keeping the crowd at bay”, what does one do? The thinker sometimes cannot help but regard hoi polloi as a herd of fools, and yet: if this evaluation becomes too strong, too defining, it winds up screening out something else that’s crucial, and one’s laughter at other human beings becomes disdainful and even at times cruel. I love Chekhov, because he has such a clear perception of human foibles -- no illusions about human beings’ capacity to self-deceive, to regard themselves far more highly than they merit, to edit out inconvenient facts -- but Chekhov is also full of compassion at the same time. I don’t always feel this about Brecht.

R.F.: Well, I think you are wrong about Brecht, but right about cynicism (so defined). What cynicism risks is, to put it simply, losing love. And I find Brecht is full of love. If I didn’t find that, I couldn’t translate him.

S.: Here’s what motivates my reticence. Brecht so strongly resists -- he almost inverts -- the Aristotelian account of tragedy, and almost of theater itself. He wanted to foreground the strangeness of it -- opposed to naturalism, so that you don’t as a viewer ever identify with what you see. This is what I find both very interesting and also extremely problematic. I am wary of the way this sort of identification and “empathy” can be co-opted, turned into a product, put at the service of the status quo. This is what Brecht objects to and probably more than anyone else taught us to suspect. Of course he wants to get us to question ideology -- as you know, for all his love of Horace, as a student he got into trouble for dismissing the line Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori as propaganda. (This was during the first World War.) Clearly he’s right about this. At the same time, I find it almost distressing to produce works of theater that seek to create further alienation. It isn’t that I want plays merely to offer solace in the face of a miserable existence that could be changed if, perhaps, we were not so easily satisfied with these theatrical diversions. But I almost view this aggravation of alienation -- whatever he thought he was accomplishing by it -- as a capitulation more than a resistance.

R.F.: Brecht is a rationalist; and if he’s guilty of anything, I think, it’s the sin of making his divisions too strongly. As a student of Taoism, he ought not to do that -- and I think he comes to see this later, turning his own critical apparatus against himself. In a famous later poem, “Changing the Tire,” from the Buckow Elegies (as they’re called, though they’re really epigrams), he says:
I sit on the curb.
The driver is changing the tire.
I am not pleased with where I have come from,
I am not pleased with where I am going.
Why do I watch the changing of the tire
With impatience?
He’s beginning to break down the categories. He was director of the East Berlin Ensemble when he wrote this. But his love was always for the ordinary people; and his disdain was for the parasites. He embraced Marxism as a dogma too strongly, and it was only when he came to Berlin and saw, again, more of the same damn thing, that he began to dismantle that way of thinking. But this was towards the end of his life -- he died not long after.

As to his theater -- well, he created almost a new form. Beckett relies on it. There are no Cloves or Hamms in the world, but this schematisation, and these stick figures, bring out things that otherwise couldn’t be shown. Mutter Courage is not a real person, but a paradigm.

S.: Loving as you do the French Symbolists, as well as Brecht --

R.F.: you mean to ask, “how in the world…?”

S.: Well, I can imagine Brecht formulating a strong and vociferous critique of Symbolism. Now that’s fine -- we can have friends who aren’t friends with each other -- but speak if you would to what you find lovable in each, and how these loves go together. About this tension -- if in fact you see it as tension.

R.F.: Well, the binding thread here is language. From the very beginning I have been deeply taken with the question of what is possible (and not) in language, with “How to do things with words,” in J.L. Austin’s phrase. And we do all kinds of things with words.

S.: You may only like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but, at least with this inflection on doing, on practice, you are still in the lineage of Wittgenstein, including what follows from the later work.

R.F.: The human spirit, whatever that is, is indefinable, because you have to use words to define -- but it manifests itself in words.

S.: “It shows itself.” And so yes, I see we’re back to early Wittgenstein after all.

R.F.: And if I find love in various guises, this is what appeals to me. What would it have been like to be Brecht? Am I Brecht? No. Could I possibly live the life of Brecht -- no. But I would have liked to have written some of the Hollywood Elegies! He has there such a wit -- a wit that is splendid. And I can love the wit without buying into the entire metaphysics. And the same thing goes with Mallarmé. I mean, talk about a dead end for poetry! But it’s a glorious dead-end. And you want to see how far it’s possible --

S.: -- to run with it, as we were saying. Even if this leads off the cliff.

R.F.: Having tried it, I think it really is a dead end. I think my Mallarmé translations are an uneven success -- they bring out things that are valuable; but this isn’t the way I myself want to write. Un Coup de Des -- this would be a wonderful thing to try to translate, but I’m not sure it can be done.

S.: It has been done, but it’s an open question as to how well.

R.F.: Maybe Pound could have done a kind of jazz improvisation on it in his own way, but that’s not me.

S.: Pound seems to come as close as anyone might in English.

R.F.: Yes. What are the great translations of our age? Well, the Fitzgerald Rubaiyat. And Pound’s Cathay. At least these two.

S.: Funny translations, Cathay. Robert Graves, who really thought very little of Pound as a translator, had to admit that he had no competence in Chinese to evaluate Cathay, but he was very suspicious.

R.F.: But what they do is to bring something into a living English context.

S.: Graves is the poet I know who believed most strongly in the muse -- as we were speaking of a bit ago.

R.F.: Yes. The White Goddess is one of the more influential books in my own education.

S.: Graves wasn’t the only one, of course. There’s a beautiful passage in Merwin’s poem about Berryman --
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally --
R.F.: Berryman would indeed have meant it literally.

S.: Now I think Pound also believes in the Muse. But Graves loathes Pound, thinks his translations make nonsense of the language, says scurrilous and unkind things --

R.F.: Pissing contests.

S.: Ha! Or -- jealous rivals?

R.F.: I think highly of Graves as a thinker, and I regard King Jesus as a great novel; but his poetry doesn’t live, for me. That’s obviously very subjective; I don’t pretend I could justify this. But I’m a Poundophile.

S.: Do you just look past the fascism?

R.F.: No. I see the fascism as misguided but honest. I agree with his critiques of the New Deal -- and of the banks.

S.: Usury.

R.F.: I’m basically a very conservative guy. The only fascists I’ve admired are Eliot and Pound --

S.: and maybe Orff, who we were mentioning earlier…

R.F.: -- but they’ve got style. They understand -- the point of any government is to make bread that tastes good. And with usura,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags,
is thy bread dry as paper
as Pound says, in a beautiful poem. With Pound you have to pick and choose, though. The whole of the Cantos --

S.: -- very hard to read from beginning to end.

R.F.: But you have these moments that stand out, that shine out. “I have tried to write paradise. Let the wind blow.”

S.: “That is paradise.”

R.F.: Yes.

S.: I think it’s also true of Graves -- this need to pick and choose. Graves knew, any poet struggles their whole life to create a handful of poems that might last. And those that wind up reading the whole oeuvre read it because of those few things. I mentioned Dylan Thomas earlier. Few would read Thomas’ poems as a body were it not for “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night.”

R.F.: Which is a great poem -- but bad advice.

S.: Well, the Taoist doesn’t tend to rage.

R.F.: And you don’t think A Child’s Christmas in Wales would have secured him lasting readership?

S.: It’s a story with a great deal of charm. It might have done so, in a different way. But the poem “Do Not Go Gently…,” it seems to me, stands out. Among other things, it’s a sestina that manages -- and I don’t think this is just due to over-familiarity -- to have avoided the pitfalls of contrivedness to which the form is almost always prone. But far more significantly, it’s a sestina from which both of the refrains have entered the language. To have given us proverbs is an accomplishment few poets can claim.

R.F.: Yes. Blake and Shakespeare come to mind.

S.: Rarefied company! Even if you consider them mistaken proverbs, or bad advice. I mean, proverbs are always contextual anyway. As Zizek likes to insist, “Look before you leap” runs smack into “He who hesitates is lost.”

R.F.: This question of wisdom brings up the issue of conduct. I mean, if asked the question, What don’t you like about Dylan Thomas, I could answer quite irrelevantly, he was a womanizer, and a drunkard, and he cheated his hosts, and so on. But this still underscores something that is relevant: the moral aspect of art. And Pound as a Fascist does not run afoul of this, for me. Pound’s fascism is a response to the age-old problem of government.

S.: You mean perhaps that Thomas’ flaws are flaws of lack of principle; Pound’s are flaws of principle.

R.F.: How do we get a good government, Pound asks. Democracy obviously doesn’t do this. This is clear in the wake of the last election, if it wasn’t clear before. But when you have an uninformed electorate, you get bad leaders. Monarchy also was no guarantee: you wind up with idiots and bleeders. So what does work? No one has come up with an answer, but some have held that the beneficent tyrant is the answer to that question.

S.: The Enlightened Despot. Or the Philosopher-King! Not that either of us think Plato was suggesting a real regime. But Mussolini was clearly neither.

R.F.: Pound can be faulted for his judgment of Mussolini, but there’s no doubt that he thought Mussolini was that sort of leader. What I think exonerates Pound is his intention. I don’t deny that this is only a partial excuse -- but it really possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason.

S.: Would Brecht buy this?

R.F.: Brecht is trying at all times to speak the truth. And so is Pound. Whereas Thomas is trying to impress his listeners.

S.: Perhaps this is why “Do Not Go Gently…” succeeds -- because it’s an occasional poem addressing the death of a particular individual, and you can’t help but feel the ineluctable urgency of this occasion -- and there’s not the hand-waving and sound-drunk magic, the enchanter’s art, that seems to characterize so much of Thomas’ other work.

R.F.: This brings us back to Horace, interestingly. “Horace the toady”. Horace was very interested, I think, in how to write a poem that would please the emperor, and yet would tell anyone who could actually read poetry what he actually thought. I think this is why his Odes, to Tiberius and to Drusus are so dreadful: he meant them to be. And his centennial ode, too -- actually it was 110 years -- is a choral hymn to an empire he doesn’t entirely believe in; there’s no real feeling in it, he’s just preserving the old forms, and it’s almost impossible for me to translate it. It’s awful. That’s the essence of his control. You know when some people nod, they nod -- they fall asleep; when Horace nods, there’s usually a reason for it.

S.: Do you suppose Heidegger nodded off?

R.F.: You mean with Naziism?

S.: Yes. Or is it different with poets?

R.F.: I think there’s a greater compulsion for poets to speak the truth, if I may say something so paradoxical.

S.: Indeed! I thought the poet “nothing affirmeth, and so never lieth.”

R.F.: I think philosophers tend to get over-programmatic. Even the best of us have our hobby-horses. The contrast between Heidegger and the poet Gottfried Benn, I think illustrates this. Benn was a Nazi for a while, and then, instead of emigrating like Brecht (who despised him), chose what he called “inner emigration,” withdrawing into himself. There’s a certain self-deception going on here, I think -- he was an acerbic man from the beginning, and I suspect he embraced Naziism for bad reasons --

S.: -- as a kind of encouraging the world to get worse since it was getting worse anyway. He was a proto-accelerationist.

R.F.: Of course I wouldn’t want to publish any such analysis, but it seems to me he didn’t really like people, and thought that getting rid of a number of them wasn’t such a poor idea. Heidegger on the other hand, somehow imagined that Naziism was going to give him the chance to bring out the program of Sein und Zeit. This work, by the way, is not what I admire about Heidegger -- it’s full of neologisms and jargon; I like his later work, the material collected in On the Way to Language especially -- he starts getting quite clear then; not trying to invent a new language, but rather poeticize reality. He re-conceives his own being as a philosopher --

S.: -- a “Thinker” --

R.F.: -- and in the course of this he says some very valuable things, to me as a thinker and poet. Had he died in 1933, I would probably think he was just a fascist -- who cares? But he grew beyond that.

S.: So you don’t believe he avoided the seriousness of the matter in later years.

R.F.: I am a Christian, I do believe in forgiveness. And you know -- if you write good poetry, you can be forgiven almost anything.

S.: On a cultural level. It must be said that, when it comes to poetry and the Shoah, that’s about as anti-Adorno as you can get. As Auden put it:
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,.
Pardons him for writing well.
But you know, there’s something interesting about that -- Merleau-Ponty, in Adventures of the Dialectic, ventures an apologia for Stalinism in which he says more or less: Although this won’t do the dead any good, if the dictatorship of the proletariat comes about thanks to these obviously bad events -- and their badness isn’t in question -- on some level it is possible that the deaths of the Ukrainians and the show-trials and the gulag will all somehow be justified. Some people were appalled by this end-justifies-the-means argument (Voegelin for one); but Merleau-Ponty responded that his contemporaries could not face their own violence, the violence in which they were themselves already complicit. This does remind one of Heidegger saying that the Soviet Union and the United States were “metaphysically the same,” or comparing the Holocaust to the rise of technology. And while it seems a rather mixed success as an argument, there is a way in which one can feel -- particularly with art -- that sometimes a success has been won that eases the way for a kind of forgiveness. Bernard Williams speaks of this as “moral luck.” His example is Gauguin; and he asks about an imaginary (but realistic) colleague, a painter who like Gauguin also abandons family to poverty and neglect and runs off to Tahiti, and like Gauguin continues to paint, but never attains either financial or -- more crucially for Williams’ case -- artistic success, remaining a mediocre painter until death.

R.F.: One can also ask the question: is the success won in spite of, or because of, the moral lapse? I’d venture as one of the true dogmas of moral philosophy that the end never justifies the means. And this, because it confuses the journey for the destination. And the journey is the only reality.

S.: A Taoist defense of moral dogma! But then, a “dogma” of this sort is I guess what you’d call a good sign-post. But I’m not sure. I can forgive Thomas a lot for that one sestina, but what I’m forgiving is aesthetic, not ethical, lapse. I look at the other work, and I think, it’s fascinating, it’s drunk on syntax, and so on...

R.F.: How about, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”?

S.: Well, it’s a great line, but the whole poem ...

R.F.: It’s a convoluted line.

S.: But the point here is that the rest of the work is not as successful, as poetry, as “Do Not Go Gently…” And when I look at the rest, I think, it isn’t as successful. This is what I love. And I forgive the rest, or find moments that I admire and that seem to me to be indices of the greatness that is, in this one poem, in full view. But what occludes it in the other instances? James McAuley, the Australian poet, one of the perpetrators of the Ern Malley hoax and really an under-rated poet on the 20th century, thinks that Thomas was one of the main offenders in what he called the “Magian heresy,” the notion that one could, by force of language itself and language alone, conjure a kind of magic that would invoke trances and in some tangential way which he think sis under-theorized by the culprits actually “work.”

R.F.: Mallarmé would be guilty.

S.: McAuley thinks Mallarmé was perhaps the heresiarch of it all. Now I’m enough in love with poetry to think that sometimes this kind of heresy has given us something beautiful, and yet I can’t help but see McAuley’s point.

R.F.: Beautiful maybe, but meretricious. That’s what one feels with this sort of word-play. I’m attracted to it as well. I knew Poe’s “The Bells” by heart, and it seemed to me that the music that it made was of the essence of poetry. I was sixteen, I can be forgiven for that. But it’s always stayed with me. And you’ll hear some song, and the tintinnabulation, to use the Poe-ism, strikes you -- but it’s meretricious.

S.: A special effect.

R.F.: You can like “Do Not Go Gently,” and admire it for its epigrammatic qualities, but it never has struck me as a great poem -- I don’t go back to it; whereas, to take someone from an earlier generation, what Gerard Manley Hopkins manages to do with language often strikes me as truly wonderful, and unique -- no one else does this. I can imagine someone else writing the Thomas, but I cannot imagine anyone else writing Hopkins.

S.: I guess I want to say that when you go into that alchemist’s laboratory of language, like Mallarmé did, you can sometimes discover truly marvellous phenomena, but to make art of them, you must put them at the service of a vision. And if all you do is put on a light-show, it can be hypnotic, and produce a semblance of being aesthetically moved, but it still feels to me that something is amiss, askew, in this.

R.F.: Take Mallarmé's hair poem, where he imagines his lover -- with whom some people say he never had a sexual relationship, incidentally -- with her hair up -- it’s all verbal display, and while it’s quite wonderful how it does what it does, in the long run, yes, it falls flat. In the long run, this program went nowhere, it was all promise but very little substance. Some of his early sonnets, though, have such light in them.

S.: About promise -- there’s something almost poisonous about it, that can undermine one’s integrity as a poet, as a thinker; if this is all one has -- a program, so to speak -- and one never feels pressed to do anything but write manifestos about the idea of the poetry, this is clearly a problem. And yet I want to sketch a potential defense of at least one facet of this, which I think is legitimate and for which I want to lobby for a moment. Philosophy, too, I want to say, has a sort of promissory character. It gives you an assurance that it ultimately cannot deliver on, at least not in words, and it has to bring you to expect something different from words. The platonist and neo-Platonist vision is practically stipulated to be beyond what can be articulated, and so, as you’ve pointed out, is the Tao. The “poem within the poem…”

R.F.: To be sure. It was Plato who first got me thinking about all of this.

S.: The Blue Flower of Novalis, the “flower absent from all bouquets” we were speaking of before, this MacGuffin, to use the Hitchcock trope, is this notion of something always beyond our grasp, inherently so. It’s what Bonnefoy speaks of in The Arrière-pays -- the country beyond. And this promise, this gesture offstage, is of the essence if, as you insist, the Tao that is named is not the eternal Tao. It is true that you have to have some sort of content, beyond the special effects -- this is why I was underlining the classicist move of translating Horace, for there is a great deal of content in Horace, and you always feel his artistry at at the service of this content. Sometimes you may object to the content, in which case you feel like he’s prostituted his art. But in some sense -- at least in philosophy -- the content still can’t be the main thing. It’s an occasion.

R.F.: Well, even in Horace’s best poems, the content is often truisms. But the effect of the art is to bring these home, to compel one to take them seriously.

S.: Which would suggest that some occasions are better than others, better suited perhaps for these sorts of gestures. This is no doubt why the young Brecht objected to “Dulce et decorum est…” Because one ought not to take such a thing seriously, he thought.

R.F.: But where the truisms are true, Horace forces you to look again, to look deeply -- to see the adages as the fruit of people who knew what they were talking about, giving you the essence of a good life.

S.: So that in the end the “content” too -- these truisms -- turns out itself to “point beyond” themselves -- to be, like the adages we were mentioning earlier, not themselves perfect instances of wisdom, but signs of what wisdom is like -- good sign-posts, pointing “this way.”

R.F.: And read a little more closely, Horace could be giving one a primer -- how to live with a tyrant, and live well. Now you can say there’s something morally wrong with that, but this objection arises from imposing our Christianity on it. And we all do this -- we’re all Christians in this sense.

S.: We’ve inherited a worldview, a culture, which doesn’t easily, intuitively, relate to Horace’s.

R.F.: Now with Mallarmé, what I find most compelling is his ideas. His attempt -- albeit failed -- to clothe them, a la Lucretius (though not the same ideas), to realize them in poetry, in a poem which is pointing beyond itself to the pure Idea. Mallarmé is a Hegelian, and he’s trying to enact, or give us a poem in which is enacted, Spirit’s attempt to realize itself. Thesis: the flower that is in no bouquet. Antithesis: the flower that is in the poem. Did he succeed in the synthesis? Well, my translations are my attempt to find out. Perhaps it is only I who failed. But despite my temptation to be a Mallarméan, I found that in the end I couldn’t. Baudelaire lives for me more. And Verlaine maybe even more; his lyric quality is so fine, so wonderful -- you can’t find it anywhere else.

S.: I think though that of the three of them, Verlaine felt the most disillusioned in the end, about what poetry could do.

R.F.: Yes, though also maybe more at peace. It’s hard to know what Mallarmé felt, because he doesn’t tell you. Baudelaire, it seems clear, was haunted his entire life. Verlaine in the end seems to say, Well here I am, living with this ex-prostitute, who’s taking care of me -- what’s wrong with that?

S.: Some of us make our peace living under a tyrant, some with living after the failed commune.

R.F.: And there are more ways than one to do that. Some of us become gun-runners in Abyssinia.

S.: And here we are, living in what you’ve suggested is the demonstrable failure of democracy, where we too will have to make our peace one way or another. As a philosopher, I try to cultivate a long view, and not capitulate to -- here’s that word again -- cynicism. I feel an alienation from right and left, if those terms mean anything. I’m small-c conservative, never was enticed by the siren-song of progressivism, but also entirely disgusted, almost viscerally, by the mendacious self-serving narcissism of the so-called right. Once upon a time Eliot, and Pound, and also Yeats, could be enamoured of a kind of fascism, but also -- along with many other intellectuals -- could see that the strong-men were not really their kind of people; Mussolini was easy to dismiss as a buffoon even by admirers, but these same admirers never seem to have reflected that the devil might be a buffoon. Now, however, I think we are in a position where there is clearly no question.

R.F.: The banality of evil is there for all to see.

S.: Do you take your solace, then, as a philosopher, as a poet, as a Taoist -- from what vantage do you take your long view?

R.F.: I’m a Christian Taoist. I truly believe in love. I believe love is genuinely possible on earth. It may not be perfect, but as I translated Bonnefoy, “imperfection is the crown.” And the more I read the I Ching, the more I see that the Confucian jen is very close to the Buddhist karuna, and Christian agapē. Confucius himself took a view very much like Plato’s -- the only way you can form a good society, is by starting at the bottom.

S.: Another thing you share with Pound: an admiration of Master Kung.

R.F.: Confucius though thought we already had the makings of such a system in emperor-worship; we just needed to train the emperor to really be the father of the country, and things could work out. Well, they never did, perfectly, but sometimes they actually did come close. That’s probably the closest thing to a system I can believe in: a strong ruler who really does take wisdom seriously. But even here you run into the problem of succession. There is always a problem. There is no political solution.

S.: Which perhaps is why politics can be such a good crucible for propelling one beyond system -- on a personal, individual, level -- perhaps this is why the classic philosophers, Plato above all, seem to concentrate upon it. . But on the level of actual policy, these failures can have many casualties.

R.F.: About lack of system -- as a codicil to what we said earlier about poet and philosopher vis-a-vis honesty -- the philosopher has to believe in language. The poet doesn’t have to -- the poet can just play with it.

S.: Believe in it how?

R.F.: In its capacity to represent truth. Insofar as the philosopher is a system-builder. You can be a non-systematic philosopher, like Lao-tzu.

S.: Or Plato?

R.F.: In the long run, yes, Plato too. In the long run.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"A reality that is not amenable to reason" : Interview with Robert Firmage, part 1

Robert Firmage taught for many years at the University of Utah, but I met him at the bookstore he owned, Fifth World Books, where he was usually perched behind the desk, stacks of used books on either side, reading. After I got used to the scowl, I'd sometimes talk with Robert for long stretches. He introduced me to the work of Thomas Taylor, and it was thanks to him that I recognized that my intuitions about Plato were at least not without precedent.

Robert was also one of the first I knew to combine a deep respect for philosophy with poetry, and a competence in both. His work as a translator ranges over Latin, German, and French, and his volume of Trakl translations, Song of the Departed, is still in print. His philosophy is a deep synthesis of apparently disparate influences -- Plato, Nietzsche, the I Ching, among others -- but the unifying thread, in my opinion, remains a feeling for the way language can be used with a style and freedom that does not have to irreparably occlude reality, if the ways in which is doesconstrain our apprehension are continually remembered.

This interview was conducted over a few sessions, and the first followed upon a number of months of convalescence after Robert was struck in a hit-and-run accident while riding his bicycle. Partly due to technical problems (half of one recording was rendered unusable by audio interference), this interview has taken longer from beginning to end than any other I've done so far.

The first part of the interview is here; the second half can be read here.

* * *

Skholiast: So, you had this accident. That must’ve been a real scare.

Robert Firmage: Well, it wasn’t, because I was totally out of it. I’m still unclear on what actually happened. I have this shadow memory of a movement to my left, as I was cautiously bicycling along, and then suddenly there was a car there. But that may be a false memory. What I really speculate on though is not how it happened but why it happened--

S.: Because you don’t believe in chance, as you’ve told me. You believe in karma.

R.F.: Absolutely. It’s a karmic universe. Part of causality is karma. Karma is part of causality. Karma is – moral causality.

S.: Yes.

R.F.: So I came to a few conclusions as I reflected during the months that followed, that some things have deepened that are fairly interesting. For one thing I’ve become much humble. A lot more open to other people’s suffering. Whereas before I kind of went through life – not cruelly or meanly or anything, but wrote my own agenda, and what other people were doing was not that important to me. And now I don’t want to say that I’m strewing pearls about me now – I don’t hang out with the people — “I despise the vulgar mob and keep it at bay,” as Horace says – but I’m more sympathetic with others. And especially, I have truly come to realize what a treasure I have in my wife Gertrud. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t appreciate her enough before.

S.: Well, I have heard you say very appreciative things of her in the past, but there’s nothing like a concrete experience of mortality to foreground how important another person is.

R.F.: Yeah. It’s made me less macho, I guess. Before I was – “This is my responsibility, I’m gonna do it, get out of my way.” And now, I’m like a slug.

S.: Was that machismo part of continuing to bicycle well past retirement, into your 70s?

R.F.: Oh, no. I still continue to bicycle. That’s lifestyle. It’s beyond lifestyle. It’s — I hate to use such a cliché, but it’s who I am. I’ve been doing that most of my life; I’ve got a hundred and fifty-thousand miles in my legs. It’s part of keeping me healthy, among other things. No, after the accident I started bicycling with a recumbent as soon as I could, but I didn’t like it – it was too slow. In fact I think I pushed myself a little too much and it slowed my recovery. So for the last two months I’ve been doing nothing (that way) and I feel much better.

S.: Well, you haven’t been doing nothing at all, because you’ve been working a lot intellectually, and I want to ask you about that. When you say that you’ve become more humble – more attuned to what other people –

R.F.: suffer.

S.: So I want to ask you about this. Maybe this is just in a different register, an intellectual register. Your career was as a teacher -- mainly philosophy -- although you've also labored on poetry and translation your whole life too. But one can't be an effective teacher if you are thinking first of all about one's own agenda.

R.F.: Of course. My purest experience in teaching was a class in adult basic arithmetic, with halfway-house students who thought they couldn’t learn. I had to convince them first that thet could learn and then that if they could count, they could add, and if they could add, they could subtract, multiply and divide. As I recall, I was fairly successful — we even got one guy into Westminster College in Salt Lake. And it taught me as well—a whole bunch about teaching.

S.: And as a translator, you have rendered Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rilke, Trakl, Brecht, as well as a number of other German poets I might never have encountered otherwise, modern and classic -- from Walther von der Vogelweide to Peter Huchel or Johannes Bobrowski. Not to mention, from the Latin, Horace. And it seems to me that you cannot translate the work of others and have your own agenda foregrounded at the same time.

R.F.: Hmm. No. Because my translations are homages, always. You know, the I Ching said something interesting to me; “He does not serve kings and princes; he has higher goals.”

S.: This was in answer to a particular inquiry you made?

R.F.: Yes. So when I say I’m not interested, I’ve kept hoi polloi at bay, I don't mean I've lived selfishly; but all my goals have had to do with furthering what I consider art, and in this case, bringing poets to the consciousness of people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of them. Such as Trakl. Many people have thanked me for making Trakl accessible to them.

S.: Did you start translating from German or from French?

R.F.: From German – I started actually with Rilke, the Sonnets to Orpheus. I started reading him in German as an undergraduate, though I first knew about Rilke actually from Salinger, Franny and Zooey. I read the Sonnets and fell in love with them; then I read the Norton translation and it seemed to me one could do better – so I tried. And I tried again, and I tried again. So that’s what I cut my teeth on. Then Trakl was the second German poet I focused on, but in the meantime I had worked on some French, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and Verlaine came a little later. Also Bonnefoy, who I know you like – Oh, I have a Bonnefoy story for you.

S.: Ok.

R.F.: When I did my Bonnefoy translations, I finished them about the time I was married the second time, to Gertrud. We waited a year to go on our real honeymoon, which was to Germany to meet her parents. On our way there we got re-routed through Paris, and we were there in Charles de Gaul airport, and I decided on a lark to call Mercure de France to see if I could send my translations to Bonnefoy. I got someone very nice on the phone, who spoke very good English, thank God, and they were agreeable, and sent the translations on to him. And he sent me back a very nice letter, to which I responded immediately, so we had a correspondence for a while. He liked my translations, but he couldn’t give me any permissions – Mercure de France had sold the rights. So I went and sat on the translations, and forgot about them until just last year – 2014. At which point I read, on some website, that he’d been given a prize, at the age of 90. I said, my God, he’s still alive! So I went back to my translations. And I found myself totally changing them. The focus before – I had taken him at his word, and the focus had been on the individual poems which in his way of thinking had served as voices – at least this is the way he thought back then – so these various voices contend with one another within the context of the book. So I was working on the individual voices; some of them didn’t want to come through for me, but some of them I found, I perfectly well understood them and had no difficulty translating them – that was my feeling at the time. But when I came back and looked at them, I saw that what I had missed, was the unity of the poet’s voice, behind the various voices. And with that, all of a sudden the whole book came into focus. It was a wonderful experience.

S.: Thirty years later!

R.F.: Yes. And I decided, well, I have to send the new version to him. So I got in touch with John Naughton, who’s also translated him, and he was kind enough to give me his email address. So I just sent it to him, writing as I always had in English to him, and the idea was, the way we’d always done our correspondence, he’d write back in French to me. Naughton had told me, “I’m sure he’ll be glad to get them and to know you’ve been thinking of him, but don’t expect any reply, as he’s very ill.” But in two days I got a reply.

S.: I’m so pleased for you. You know, I think I told you, when I read your introduction to Correspondences, your translations of the French Symbolists, when I saw your citation of Bonnefoy I was immediately struck by it. Bonnefoy has been crucial to my own development as a thinker. His essay on “The Act and Place of Poetry,” in particular.

R.F.: And he says – it’s very brief – “Thank you for your new translations, which seem good” – and that’s all you can ask for, you know – “For my part, I continue to work, with some difficulties.” Which, at 92, you can expect.

S.: It must be very striking for him to look back at such early work of his, just as for you, to rediscover these translations you did so long ago. You’re a grandfather now, obviously very proud of your grandchildren. What is it like, shuttling back and forth between now and then, either in your life now, or looking at the next generations – is the long view different from the short view?

R.F.: Oh, absolutely. My attitude to life changed totally over the last forty years. This [poetry] is all part of that process, teaching as well – philosophy and poetry together – I had the opportunity, starting in the 1980’s to become very well acquainted with Buddhism, by teaching it. Nothing helps you learn more than that. And taking it very seriously; and one thing I came to take most seriously was the dictum that everything is an illusion. Everything. But, you know, how can you mean that? And yet, basically, I eventually came to see life that way. It’s all an illusion. In your youth, you participate in the illusion, you’re a player. And as you grow older, you become a spectator of the illusion, although you still participate. Now to say that it’s an illusion is not to say that it’s not real. Of course it’s real.

S.: Real and illusory! Spoken like a real -- and illusory too, no doubt -- Taoist. Of course, an easy and somewhat reactionary reply to this is that it doesn’t take things seriously – specifically that it doesn’t take suffering seriously, and it leads to quietism, and so on. But the Buddha takes suffering very seriously.

R.F.: Well, Bodhidharma tells us, if you want to understand suffering, attend to your mind.

S.: Who’s being fooled by this illusion, after all?

R.F.: Well, what isn’t an illusion is this mind – not consciousness, certainly not the self – but it isn’t the mind that runs through the biocomputer. It’s behind the biocomputer. Mind behind the mind.

S.: Of course this is the kind of talk that makes scientismists want to climb the walls. What do you mean, “the mind behind the mind”? Can you show me any evidence, posit any mechanism? But Bodhidharma does think there is evidence: pay attention to the nature of mind, and you’ll see it.

R.F.: It’s evidence, of a whole different order. It’s not phenomenal evidence, it’s noumenal evidence, to switch to a Kantian register. Whatever Kant thought he was doing, he was definitely knocking on that particular door. The ding-an-sich doesn’t exist, of course, it’s a myth; but at the same time, it’s what’s behind that. Benjamin too is getting at this when he talks about pure language, you know, the language that wants to emerge in a translation: the marriage of two languages which creates a third.

The idea of scientists crawling the wall, in any case, is one I like. They’d be crawling up an illusion. I speak with some misgiving as I know I’ll be misunderstood, but I studied science as an undergraduate at CalTech, and the scientists around me struck me at the time --strong though this language is -- as very learned idiots. That’s sometimes a good state to be in --

S.: Yes, if you are Nicholas of Cusa. Or Socrates. But then,you have to know you don’t know.

R.F.: Well, in this case, it’s not particularly good. They believe in the given; they are positivists, and they don’t know how to look behind the given. And they take everything as fated, yet at the same time, everything is chance. There’s a dialectic there.

S.: Well, if only there were a dialectic there! But the dialectic never emerges. It’s unexamined. Yes, there’s a contradiction between this fatedness and this chance, but science qua science doesn’t press this contradiction, with a few exceptions. I’ve known wise scientists, but the scientismists I encounter, who seem to be part of a rising trend of late, don’t ask the question and in fact don’t seem to see the question.

R.F.: Yes. We’re talking about a kind of snow-blindness, being blinded by the phenomena. Not being able to see anything else, not able to believe there is anything else. There’s a tremendous temerity to scientism as well. Everyone before Darwin was a fool!

S.: Or, if not a fool, then somehow to be pitied, because – if only they could have known what we know: how it really is!

R.F.: And it’s that which makes me say they are idiots. They should know better.

Huh. How did we get onto scientism?

S.: My fault – I was saying something in response to your remark about Buddhism –

R.F.: Oh yes, “All an illusion.”

S.: This long engagement you’ve had with Buddhism, and also Taoism, is one of what I’d say are three strands I’ve heard you talk about in your philosophical development. I recall you did your early work on Wittgenstein.

R.F.: Yes.

S.: And later, when we first began to talk, it was all about Plato, and a particular stream of Platonism and neoPlatonism; it was because of you that I read Thomas Taylor, who no one else had ever mentioned to me. Were these stages in your thought? Or were they strands in a braid?

R.F.: It’s a constellation.

S.: There’s a Mallarméan term!

R.F.: In the Timaeus at the beginning, he names three and says “Where’s the fourth?” In Hegelian dialectic, three’s a crowd: it always generates a fourth; and the same is true in Jung. I think there’ve been four main philosophers with whom I’ve dealt. Wittgenstein does not occupy me so much anymore. He was good for me to cut my teeth on, and I still love the man; he was so fucked up in such a creative way. I say this with no condescension at all, but with admiration. I love the anecdote Bertrand Russell tells of Wittgenstein in his chambers at Cambridge, pacing up and down, and when Russell asked him, Are you contemplating philosophy or your sins, he responded, Both. What a wonderful answer!

S.: It seems to have been the answer he gave his whole life.

R.F.: Yes. But the main problem I have with him is that the only book I can read by him is the Tractatus. He is probably the only philosopher I’ve written work on that I’m really proud of. I use it, for instance, to introduce my paper on Taoism.

S.: When did you discover Taoism?

R.F.: Taoism came into my life in about 1974, when a friend stole a copy of the Wilhelm-Baynes translation of the I Ching and gave it to me. I knew it was stolen, because he didn’t have any money; but he told me, You’ve got to read this. My wife at the time, Jan, and I together asked the question, How do we prepare for our first child? And the hexagram we got in answer was hexagram 37, The Family. Well, coincidence, right? Except, what does that mean? So anyway, I started studying it, and it’s been a thread in my life ever since.
Plato on the other hand was always a thread. The third philosopher would be Heidegger. And then, because there has to be a fourth, the fourth would be Nietzsche. So you’ll note a very strong Germanic influence. You may have heard that there are two kinds of music: German, and bad? Some would say the same of philosophy. And maybe of women; but I’m a little prejudiced about that.

But let’s start with Plato. In the Republic, he presents a program of education: it’s designed to bring individuals to a place where they can gain an awareness of the Absolute. The steps are maybe clearer in the Symposium: the lover starts with loving one person, and goes on to love all beautiful things, and ascends to perceive Beauty itself. But, you know, what kind of perception is that? To talk about how one perceives it violates something – “whereof one cannot speak.” But notice, Plato’s trinity, the True, the Beautiful, and the Good: he asserts it is a moral universe, right there; one somehow perceives the Good. And I too, of course, assert this: morality is as much a part of the universe as gravity is, which is why I believe in the universality of karma; but how one sees this is very hard to say. One can say that one perceives it “with the mind’s eye,” whatever the Hell that is. It’s a good enough metaphor; but already we’re foundering. It resists being put into words. The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao; the truth that can be written, that can be expressed, is not the “true” truth.

One finds the same thing in Benjamin, even in just that one brief essay on “The task of the translator,” or in his kabbalah studies. “Pure language!” I know what he means. When I read Benjamin, I think, this man has lived my life. He’s had my thoughts.

Not that I agree with everything he says; I utterly disagree that great poets cannot be great translators, for instance. Of course, he never makes this claim outright, but he implies it.

S.: That Benjaminian evocation of pure language – how does that resonate for you with the Mallarméan longing for the flower?

R.F.: The flower “missing from all bouquets”?

S.: Yes.

R.F.: How does it not? We’re talking about a language in which reference is no longer important except in the sense of intention, which in the phenomenological ambiance of the early 20th century when Benjamin was writing has nothing to do with meaning to do something; it has to do with pointing. In the same sense that the Buddhist parable speaks of pointing at the moon: it’s not the damn finger that you’re looking at!

S.: And you read Brentano and Husserl that way?

R.F.: Absolutely. The essence of mind, of mentality, is intentionality. Without reference. Of course, this is all extremely shorthand, and would need a lot of fleshing out.

S.: Well, but isn’t that the point? “Flower” is shorthand, for that one, and that one, and that one....

R.F.: And yet it’s none of them. But you can’t say that it doesn’t exist, because it’s absent. That’s what the preface to the Correspondences volume is all about. Probably the only way I do philosophy anymore these days is epigrammatically. There’s Nietzsche again.

S.: And Nietzsche himself would say that thought itself is abbreviation.

R.F.: Yes.

S.: Wittgenstein says that when philosophers meet, they ought to hail each other with the greeting, “Take your time.” That’s good advice because there is a sense in which the words always go too fast. Particularly when the spark starts to leap, as Plato says in the Seventh Letter, you do have this sense of enormous things passed over in silence, or posited quickly and then moved on from.

R.F.: Well, let’s move on to that third member of the group, Heidegger. He’s been the one I’ve been working on most assiduously lately – although for me that’s still a rather sporadic phenomenon. When Heidegger asks about Being, rather than beings, here we are right up into Taoism already, because we’re struck with the inadequacy of how we express ourselves. You know: “I’m talking about Mind, not ‘mind.’ ” Well! But when you really think about it, the Being of beings is indeed something “behind” the things, something not accessible through language; he’s saying – but it’s only a pointing – that in our everyday engagement, we take this whole thing for granted. It’s incredible: this thing we call life, which is so rich, so complicated, and so simple, so exasperating, and we don’t ever ask: What is it?

It’s easy to accept unthinkingly, before you read Einstein and modern physics, things like simultaneity. We take for granted that it makes sense to say this happened at the same time as that. But my sister-in-law lives in Germany. What is she doing “now”? It’s a different time of day. Does it make sense to speak of “the same time” in this case, and if so, how does that work? And then furthermore, as Wittgenstein asks: what time is it on the sun? You start to realize that all these things make sense in only in small packages.

S.: Locality.

R.F.: Yes. But beyond that – as you expand the context, what we took for granted is gone.

S.: This is one reason Wittgenstein insists that we keep coming back to immediate practice; what we actually do, how we actually use words, as parts of our particular human projects....

R.F.: Heidegger does the same thing. He asks about the vorhanden, and everything is a tool. But what interests me about Heidegger, is he started out as a theology student, became a philosopher (and for a while a Nazi), and then at the end, in the Der Spiegel interview, he says, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” “Only a God can save us.” So you know. He’s always had this theological strain. He’s got a secret Buddhist/Taoist axe to grind, but he doesn’t want to bring it up, he wants you to think about it yourself.

S.: What do you think he thought we needed to be saved from?

R.F.: Ourselves. I think he thought we were bewitched, not by language as Wittgenstein thought, but by practice. This is where Heidegger goes beyond Wittgenstein.

S.: Well, one can surely see that local concerns on a human scale don’t work well to give us our bearings when we back out very far at all; that’s why it doesn’t work to ask what time it is on the sun. Nor, either, when we zoom in very close –

R.F.: – it’s changing contexts. And meaning relies on context.

S.: But what is my shared context with an amoeba? Or with a salmon?

R.F.: What kind of conversation can you have with an amoeba? Can you have one?

S.: Well, I may. Dysentery is a sort of conversation, or at least a kind of interaction, with an amoeba.

R.F.: OK, yeah. Nonverbal communication.

S.: And I have – there’s a sort of commerce between myself and the salmon as well.

R.F.: Mm hmm. Well, I have a wonderful relation with my dog. I understand her, and she clearly understands what I do.

S.: And there’s all sorts of back-and-forth in Taoist literature between the smaller compass of human concerns and the less clearly outlined but much larger natural world.

R.F.: And then the Tao. One ascends step by step. Man follows Earth, Earth follows Heaven, Heaven follows the Tao, and the Tao follows itself. When you follow that whole line, you find that there is something that is shared; but it’s noumenal, it’s not phenomenal.

S.: Asking “what time is it on the sun?” is asking a misplaced question, thinking you will find the answer on the phenomenal plane.

R.F.: Yes.

S.: Is this step-by-step like the ascent from the Cave?

R.F.: In the sense that it leads you to the noumena, yes.

S.: Why then do you think Heidegger mounts such a fierce attack on Plato?

R.F.: Because he thinks Plato starts too far in the phenomena. I’m not sure he understands the Republic the way I do. (I’m not sure he doesn’t, either!) Much of Heidegger’s attention is on later dialogues like the Sophist. But Plato has, from Heidegger’s position a problem. Plato wants commerce between the world of Ideas and this world.

S.: : Supposedly Plato has a strong anti-poet bias. As both a poet and a self-described Platonist, do you think this is just a misunderstanding? And if not, how do you square these two enthusiasms?

R.F.: Perhaps my answer seems, or will seem, to you an evasion. To begin with, you’ve got to add Taoist to your list, because that is the key to the whole riddle. I should also probably add a caveat — it’s not that I am a Platonist, poet, Taoist, Christian, whatever. There are no doubt millions of Christians who would deny me standing, and hundreds at least of the others who with their respective beliefs, would do the same. The point is rather that I consider myself a Taoist Christian Platonist poet; the point is indeed that I have a special understanding of what each of these labels essentially or intrinsically denote. Because they are just labels, words. And what they do is to provide a convenient device to make unequals equal in certain respects. But the Taoist, as I understand her, does not believe in words — not as denoters, or as rigid designators. Words are but fingers pointing to that moon which is some particular aspect of the ‘world’ (in its broadest sense) which is under consideration. Or, perhaps better (but still vague & metaphorical), language is a communal grid we place between ourselves and the world in order to facilitate communication of whatever we’re pointing to, in order to secure common reference. What words we use do not identify or rigorously define what we are pointing to, they merely help locate it.

The picture I have painted is too schematic and oversimplified — but it comes down to the contention that all language is irreducibly tropical. Kind of an anti-logical-positivism: precision of definition is impossible. I hope you have followed.

What I consider my Platonism ties in here. Platonism is the doctrine that there exist two orders: the order of thought (spirit, ideality, absolute truth) and the order of empiricism (truth by consensus, intersubjectivity masquerading as objectivity, blood-sweat-and-tears). In the Parmenides, Plato shows that the order of language (and hence of our rationality) is strictly incommensurable with the order of Ideas (forms) and that there is no way to bridge the gulf short of platonic contemplation (which is adumbrated in the Republic). What platonists call ideal reality (the realm of forms), Taoists call the Tao; what taoists call language, platonists call opinion (knowledge below the middle of the ‘line’).

So when I call myself a Platonist I am calling myself a Taoist — I believe in a reality that is not amenable to reason.

So how can a poet be a Taoist/Platonist? Because poetry -- or rather art, all art -- is the art of pointing. The ‘truth’ sought by the real poet is in the world, not in his writing — his poem merely points to it. A poem would seem to me the most intricate finger designed by man — unless, of course, it was the gods who designed it.

And what — finally! — of Plato’s diatribe against the poets? I wrote a paper on this subject — one of my best as a student — but the gist of it was that Plato was aiming his polemics at a different sort of creature — the sophist-poet. Plato’s “poet,” the target of his polemic, is one who recites from memory, is immersed wholly in rhetoric and obfuscates with adornment. But Plato himself, as has often been noted, is the most poetical of philosophers. He does not prove, he entertains hypotheses. His ‘theories' are pictures of reality as he envisions it. He never pontificates, and whenever Socrates ‘proves’ a point, Plato wants us to recognize the fallacies involved in his ‘proof'. That is what I try to do as a poet. But I am not as good at it as Plato.

This whole response is an adumbration of what seems complicated, but is really rather simple, once it’s clear.

Also: what I call my Christianity connects also with Platonism. In the Symposium, Socrates speaks of love as being the means by which we are able to bridge the gap from rationality to the forms. Jesus taught that there are no commandments but only the requirement to love, which is not a law since love to be love must be freely given. My belief is that only if we approach it with love can we understand the world.

S.: And what poetic projects are you working on now?

R.F.: I’m trying to put together a number of collections of translations, work I have done over a lifetime. I just finished transcribing a poem, which I hadn’t thought I would include at first. Something I came across in the early ‘80s by a German poet named Heinz Piontek, called Vorkriegszeit, which I have translated as "Prewartime." It is virtually unknown in America. Back then I was working on a compilation of modern German poets, all on the theme of nature. Of course – nature, war, death, love, the depredation of the environment. That was when I found most of the poets I went on to translate more of. I had already known Brecht, and Rilke; but I then got to know Trakl especially, and also Peter Huchel, of whom I hope eventually to publish my translations.

S.: It’s thanks to you that I ever read Huchel.

R.F.: Well, Piontek was another of those. He’s West German, though; most of the others were East German, or else like Trakl and Rilke they predated the split. Trakl of course was Austrian. But Huchel is East German, Bobrowski as well. The anthology never worked, because nobody ever wanted such a thing – a thematic anthology. I understand this much better now. But I’ve been able to use much of the work now, and I find that the translations hold up, though I adjust them here and there. Brecht for instance is relatively easy to translate -- he spent so much time in America that in some ways he thinks like an American. Bobrowski is harder. And Piontek -- he’s considered a Christian metaphysical poet. Stylistically, he’s perhaps in the tradition of some modernist French poets, less in the tradition of the Germans. Most Germans come from Expressionism; he doesn’t. I find his prosody very simple. But the poem is well worth knowing, especially now; it’s an apocalyptic poem. It reminds me in some ways of Carl Orff’s later work. Do you know his choral work Comedy for the End of Time?

S.: No; I know his work for children, and of course the Carmina Burana.

R.F.: Well, at the end of this huge piece, De temporum fine comoedia, Satan comes before God, and says, Pater Peccavi, Pater Peccavi, Pater Peccavi. “Father, I have sinned.” And that’s the end of time. Piontek’s poem is similar, but he sets it around the Jewish prophetic tradition, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the wisdom literature. It’s written to Wisdom, and opposes to it all the human folly of the century.

S.: Timely.

R.F.: Yes. I’ve just finished that. I’m still, too, in the midst of Horace, who I love, though he’s difficult as Hell.

S.: When you work on an ancient poet, like Horace, do you feel you must change your poetic register?

R.F.: Every poet is different. For Brecht, for instance, you want a tone that is colloquial and quite sardonic, probably looking back to the expressionists and post-symbolists, but his voice is unique. And what one wants to do as a translator is to find a corresponding voice within oneself, that expresses that range. And a necessity for being a good translator is loving your poet, loving what they’re doing and wanting to do the same thing, insofar as that’s possible. Easy to say, hard to understand. On the other hand, somebody like Horace has a certain formality -- I find myself going back probably as far as the seventeenth century, for English models. My language tends to become Biblical, my grammar. One of the things I’ve always insisted upon is precision -- the difference, say, between shall and will; care with the subjunctive mood; that sort of thing is very clear in Horace. “Shall” has an inexorability to it; “will” expresses an intention; that’s my own short summary of it. Little things like that are important, and I always run the risk of the charge of artificiality, preciosity, or just plain derivation; but if someone wants to accuse me of channeling Sir Thomas Browne, I won’t feel bad.

S.: The seventeenth century seems like a good place to go for models for Horace’s language; though not everyone thought well of him then. Dryden, I think, called him a court slave ,or words to that effect.

R.F.: Yes, well, I think Marvell is where to turn for good language to express Horace; not Dryden, whose opinion moreover is not fair at all. In the first place, one has to recognize political necessity; and if like Horace you are an Epicurean and a Stoic to boot, that necessity is something you’re always going to recognize. He asked himself, What better government can you imagine in these circumstances? And he answered, None. He was sick of civil war, of which they had had fifty years. He had lost his ancestral home during that, because he’d backed the wrong horse, and he managed to claw himself back into favor; and as a poet, especially as someone who sees his own calling to be the Roman lyric poet, he needed that favor. Brecht understands this, and by the way loves Horace.

S.: Yes, that does speak well for him -- it gives the lie to the notion of Horace as a fawning imperial yes-man.

R.F.: So yes, he’s a pragmatist; but he’s not a toady. He kept his opinions to himself. He created a persona -- again, very much like Brecht.

S.: I have some questions about contrasting poets and kinds of poetry. One is this question about the ancients and the moderns. You’ve described yourself as not liking change; but you’ve spent a lot of time with Rilke and Trakl, for instance, and a hundred years ago, when this sort of modern poetry was making its inroads into English, at any rate, people were alarmed at the casting-off of forms. Though when I read The Waste Land, for instance, I don’t think I’m merely projecting Eliot’s later conservatism back on it; I find it to be actually kind of a conservative poem in some way; not just in that Eliot seems already weary, though he was in his 20’s when he wrote it --

R.F.: Well, he was already weary. Look at Prufrock -- “I grow old, I grow old….” -- and when he wrote that, he was even younger.

S.: But there’s also a fairly discernible content to The Waste Land, which is why I call it conservative compared with what was roughly contemporary; it’s hardly a Dada anti-poem, or even a cascade of Surrealist free-association -- though it is as in love with, as drunk with, sound or diction, as Dylan Thomas, or --

R.F.: -- or Pound, for instance, who’s the one I look to. Pound has an ability I strive after -- his ear, which may be a little eclectic or over-lush, romantic, but which I love. Thomas leaves me a bit cold, and Eliot -- well, The Waste Land I find to be a failed poem. Unlike Four Quartets. In The Waste Land, he tries to do to much, and Pound tried to claw it back; he warned Eliot that he was running into becoming an essayist. It’s a real risk; in my book Stone, I think I fall to it a little. In any case, my admiration of Pound has to do with my seeking, as a translator, for the qualities of a voice. It’s not a historical period, or even a register, for my vocabulary and diction; I’m trying to reproduce what I’m hearing, which isn’t necessarily German or French or Latin, you know; it’s human somehow. The concept of “Voice in Robert Firmage” would become a very metaphysical study before too long, because I am always looking for the Poem within the Poem. As a good Taoist, I may not like change, but I must recognize it and though I can shore up my little routines against it, I always end up bowing to it.

S.: And so a poem changes in translation, but one hopes that the poem within the poem is still discernible -- is made contemporary again, perhaps. This is perhaps what I wanted to ask you about the ancients and moderns. Do you feel that all these poets -- the ones you can love, anyway -- in some sense your contemporaries?

R.F.: Oh yes. And these -- those whom I feel are my contemporaries -- are the only ones I can translate. I can’t translate Vergil, for instance. He’s the one who’s a toady, if you want my opinion. He’s also a very great poet. But contrast him with Horace -- Horace reaches into his own self, and you can read out of what he’s saying about Augustus: “he’s a good egg, so to speak , once you get to know him -- but he’s also a martinet and wants everyone around him to be sycophants, and I’m not going to be one” -- and he wasn’t. Augustus wrote to Maecenus saying, “I’d like your friend Horace to be my personal secretary,” and Horace said, Not Interested. Yet Augustus kept after him to continue to write poems, even after he’d finished the Odes; this is how we get Book Four, which is really a coda, which kept him in favor with Augustus, but contains the worst things he ever did -- the so-called Secular Hymn about the glory of the Roman army reads like a Pagan press release. Well, you can be the Poet Laureate, but you’ve got to do the work; and so he wrote a couple of bad poems. If this was all there was to Horace I couldn’t translate him; but there’s so much more. His wonderful sense of humor, so dry -- I like that, and I suspect this is why Brecht liked him as well.

S.: There’s that sobering quip by Fredric Jameson to the effect that one can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Well, for myself, I find it very difficult to imagine poets, qua poets, ever becoming so sought after, so pursued or so feared, again. Yet it was fairly recently still the case; the example that came to mind is Mandelshtam, who offended Stalin, tried to get himself back into favor with a bad poem -- and knew he had succumbed to a moment of cowardice. In any case it didn’t work, and he certainly atoned for it. But I just cannot imagine this happening now -- certainly not in the United States, not in the west generally. Can it happen? What does this mean for poetry, or for us, that this art which once made emperors solicit your favor with bribes and threats, and dictators punish with gulag and banishment, has become less than a byword for nobody giving a damn?

R.F.: Well that’s the point. Nobody gives a damn. No one reads poetry now except for a small minority -- maybe eggheads like you and me --

S.: -- or wistful students? I don’t believe it. I know that poetry readings always seem pretty full when I attend. But it is true that they feel like they’ve become consumer events. Even the Poetry Slams, which are touted for their vibrant energy -- they’re not making any of the Great Powers tremble. Auden said that poets write for three audiences: the heads of state whose ears they have, the beautiful young people they imagine they will bed, and their fellow poets. Which means that, in practice, they write for their fellow poets.

R.F.: That’s right. But I write poetry for the sake of the Muse. I’ve become more and more certain as I grow older that this is the correct metaphor. When you write, you are the voice of the muse in one sense, but more importantly, the muse is your voice.

S.: If you are lucky. Or blessed.

R.F.: The muse is what gives your voice life. And there’s no other reason to write poetry, in this day and age. You can imagine that some day in the distant future some other poet will come across your work, like Yeats with Blake -- you can hope for that, but you can’t expect it. If you write “for posterity,” you’re writing for something you don’t understand and may never exist. No one knows what posterity will be like. As for writing for one’s contemporaries, in America, that’s hopeless. You’d do better to become a rock star.

But here’s my fantasy. I imagine Trakl, in Heaven, smiling down. That is enough. I actually got this with Bonnefoy. He responded, he was touched, and what more could you want -- as a translator? As a poet, well, I don’t really have a poetic style anymore, and maybe I never did. Every book of my own has had its own voice; and, if I manage to write my last book before I die, I’ll hope to build off of all of these things I’ve been doing, translations and my own work, and perhaps it will come together.

S.: Do you feel any urgency about this project now, in light of your brush with mortality?

R.F.: If it happens, good; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t happen.


(the second half of this interview is now posted as well.)